The 6 ‘major risks’ to the quality of education, according to Ofsted


The chief inspector of schools Amanda Spielman has outlined the “major risks” to the quality of education, and renewed calls for greater powers for inspectors.

In a letter to the parliamentary public accounts committee, Spielman said Ofsted “has not hesitated to speak out” when its inspections identify system-wide concerns, and pledged to continue to “speak from the evidence to make sure that Ofsted remains a force for improvement in the education and care sectors” throughout her tenure.

However, although she called for more funding for the further education sector, Spielman insisted her inspectors were still “not seeing an impact on education standards” in schools as a result of real-terms cuts. This is likely to be controversial, as the Ofsted boss has been criticised in the past for failing to speak out over school funding problems.

Here are the six “major risks” highlighted in Spielman’s letter.


1. Hundreds of schools are ‘stuck’ in cycle of poor performance

In her letter, Spielman voiced concerns about 490 “intractable schools”, institutions that have been “stuck” with poor performance for “a very long time”, and set out plans to evaluate why interventions in these schools haven’t worked.

The issue was raised in Ofsted’s annual report last year, but the chief inspector told the committee today that the watchdog remains concerned.

“That these schools remain poor for so long means that, for some children, in certain areas, there may be no opportunity to attend a good school at any point in their education,” she said. “This is nothing short of a scandal and is a betrayal of children’s futures.”

Analysis of the more than 290 primary schools and 190 secondary schools found that the proportions of pupils eligible for free school meals and white British pupils eligible for free school meals were “well above the national average”.

The proportion of stuck secondary schools also “varies considerably among different regions”.


2. Outstanding schools ‘lack oversight’

The government has been under pressure to remove the inspection exemption for ‘outstanding’-rated schools for some time, but Ofsted has ramped up that pressure in recent months.

As a result of the exemption, brought in in 2011, hundreds of schools have not been inspected for over a decade.

Spielman said this was “unpopular with parents and even with teachers”, and leaves Ofsted with “real blind spots as to the quality of education and safeguarding in these schools.

“While some issues with outstanding schools will be caught in performance data, allowing us to trigger an inspection, others, such as curriculum narrowing, gaming and poor safeguarding practices, may not.

“The outstanding grade should be a symbol that a school is a beacon of excellence. If we are to maintain its reputation, the exemption from inspection for outstanding schools must be removed and Ofsted fully resourced to inspect those schools.”


3. Ofsted’s lack of powers to inspect academy trusts is ‘untenable’

Like her predecessor Sir Michael Wilshaw, Spielman has been a vocal campaigner for inspection powers over academy trusts.

At the moment, Ofsted can only conduct “focused inspections” of academy trusts, which does not involve a judgment on their back office functions and wider organisational structures.

In her letter, Spielman warned that “the current construction of the accountability system no longer reflects the education system we have today”.

Though a supporter of greater autonomy for headteachers, the chief inspector said it was “vital that our inspection and accountability system also evolves to reflect the new reality of the school landscape”.

“As you will be aware, Ofsted does not at present have the ability to inspect multi-academy trusts (MATs). We believe this situation is untenable. In many MATs, much decision-making now sits at the level of the trust, not just on financial and employment matters, but in determining curriculum, teaching and assessment.

“To remain properly valid, inspection must reach every level at which decisions are being made, otherwise we will only ever be able to give the Department for Education (DfE), parents and Parliament a partial view of what is happening in our schools.”


4. School accountability is narrowing what pupils learn

Curriculum has been one of Spielman’s areas of focus since she took over as chief inspector in 2017, and today, the Ofsted boss warned the current accountability approach is “failing young people”.

Recent research by the watchdog found evidence that “an overly data-driven accountability system is narrowing what pupils are able to study and learn”, prompting a rethink of Ofsted’s inspection system that moves the focus away from exam results.

However, in her letter, Spielman said the reason schools have adopted these policies are “understandable”.

“The accountability system in recent years has become overly weighted in favour of performance data and has shifted away from what is actually being taught.

“As our own inspection practice has moved away from subject-level review and towards shorter, in many cases just day-long, inspections, Ofsted inspections have themselves become more data-driven.”


5. Off-rolling and illegal schools a ‘huge concern’

The lack of information about where children end up when they are taken out of schools for so-called “home education” is “perhaps my greatest concern as chief inspector”, Spielman said today, as she called for a register of home-schooled pupils.

She said Ofsted had “a lot of anecdotal evidence” that suggests parents are home-educating their children “under duress, to prevent exclusion”.

“Often, these parents do not have the capacity to provide a good standard of education. In other cases, parents use home education as a guise to allow them to use illegal schools or to evade the scrutiny of public services.”

Spielman said Ofsted’s unregistered schools taskforce continues to identify potential illegal schools, but warned that without powers to seize evidence during inspections, Ofsted is “tackling this problem with one hand tied behind our back”.

“My inspectors have been shocked by what they have found in these schools. Often, the premises are squalid and unsafe. The quality of education offered is often poor and, in some cases, the curriculum is severely limited.”


6. DfE and councils don’t support schools under pressure

According to Spielman,  “too little support” is given by the DfE and local authorities to “schools that face pressure from groups in the local community or national pressure groups”.

Her comments follow a row over a decision by a school in London to ban younger pupils from wearing the hijab.

“Ofsted will always support schools that make the right decisions in the interests of all children who attend their school, particularly when this is in the face of undue influence.

“However, as the inspectorate, there is only so much we can do. We very much hope that the DfE moves to put in place stronger guidance to support schools that find themselves in these circumstances.”

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  1. Spielman is right that excessive emphasis on exam results distorts the curriculum and fails pupils. But her downplaying of data isn’t as tough as it may seem. She contradicts herself by saying attainment and progress will always be central to accountability.
    She also ties herself in a knot over academy freedom. On the one hand she says school heads will have more autonomy outside LA ‘auspice’ but then admits MATs, not academy heads, exert far more control over their schools than LAs ever did.

    • John Joseph

      I agree, Ms Spielman’s argument is agreeable in parts, but fails to offer clarrity or recognise the real damage Ofsted has done in fanning the flames of rampant hyper accountability. Ofsted seems unable to reinvent its role to become the inspectorate the systems needs and deserves.

      Too many of those shaping policy have become detached from the day to day tempo of schooling.

      Most observers can see that this organisation is in need of a root and branch review in order to measure its costs and measurale benefits. They too easily claim success for driving up standards, but are unwilling to own the high rates of attrition and loss of teachers and leaders.